Mr. Buck and myself concluded we would try our luck at lead mining for the summer and purchased some mining tools for the purpose. We camped out and dug holes around all summer, getting just about enough to pay our expenses–not a very encouraging venture, for we had lived in a tent and had picked and shoveled and blasted and twisted a windlass hard enough to have earned a good bit of money.
In the fall we concluded to try another trapping tour, and set out for Prairie du Chien. We knew it was a poor place to spend money up in the woods, and when we got our money it was all in a lump and seemed to amount to something. Mr. Brisbois said that the prospects were very poor indeed, for the price of fur was very low and no prospect of a better market. So we left our traps still on storage at his place and went back again. This was in 1847, and before Spring the war was being pushed in Mexico. I tried to enlist for this service, but there were so many ahead of me I could not get a chance.
I still worked in the settlement and made a living, but had no chance to improve my land. The next winter I lived with Mr A. Bennett, hunted deer and sold them at Mineral Point, and in this way made and saved a few dollars.
There had been from time to time rumors of a better country to the west of us and a sort of a pioneer, or western fever would break out among the people occasionally. Thus in 1845 I had a slight touch of the disease on account of the stories they told us about Oregon. It was reported that the Government would give a man a good farm if he would go and settle, and make some specified improvement. They said it was in a territory of rich soil, with plenty of timber, fish and game and some Indians, just to give a little spice of adventure to the whole thing. The climate was very mild in winter, as they reported, and I concluded it would suit me exactly. I began at once to think about an outfit and a journey, and I found that it would take me at least two years to get ready. A trip to California was not thought of in those days, for it did not belong to the United States.
In the winter of 1848-49 news began to come that there was gold in California, but not generally believed till it came through a U.S. officer, and then, as the people were used to mines and mining, a regular gold fever spread as if by swift contagion. Mr. Bennett was aroused and sold his farm, and I felt a change in my Oregon desires and had dreams at might of digging up the yellow dust. Nothing would cure us then but a trip, and that was quickly decided on.
As it would be some weeks yet before grass would start, I concluded to haul my canoe and a few traps over to a branch of the Wisconsin, and make my way to Prairie du Chien, do a little trapping, get me an Indian pony on which to ride to California. There were no ponies to be had at Mineral Point. Getting a ride up the river on a passing steamboat I reached Prairie La Crosse, where the only house was that of a Dutch trader from whom I bought a Winnebago pony, which he had wintered on a little brushy island, and I thought if he could winter on brush and rushes he must be tough enough to take me across the plains. He cost me $30, and I found him to be a poor, lazy little fellow. However, I thought that when he got some good grass, and a little fat on his ribs he might have more life, and so I hitched a rope to him and drove him ahead down the river. When I came to the Bad Axe river I found it swimming full, but had no trouble in crossing, as the pony was as good as a dog in the water.
Before leaving Bennett’s I had my gun altered over to a pill lock and secured ammunition to last for two years. I had tanned some nice buckskin and had a good outfit of clothes made of it, or rather cut and made it myself. Where I crossed the Bad Axe was a the battle ground where Gen. Dodge fought the Winnebago Indians. At Prairie du Chien I found a letter from Mr. Bennett, saying that the grass was so backward he would not start up for two or three weeks, and I had better come back and start with them; but as the letter bore no date I could only guess at the exact time. I had intended to strike directly west from here to Council Bluffs and meet them there, but now thought perhaps I had better go back to Mineral Point and start out with them there, or follow on rapidly after them if by any chance they had already started.
On my way back I found the Kickapoo river too high to ford, so I pulled some basswood bark and made a raft of a couple of logs, on which to carry my gun and blanket; starting the pony across I followed after. He swam across quickly, but did not seem to like it on the other side, so before I got across, back he came again, not paying the least attention to my scolding. I went back with the raft, which drifted a good way down stream, and caught the rascal and started him over again, but when I got half way across he jumped and played the same joke on me again. I began to think of the old puzzle of the story of the man with the fox, the goose and a peck of corn, but I solved it by making a basswood rope to which I tied a stone and threw across, then sending the pony over with the other end. He staid this time, and after three days of swimming streams and pretty hard travel reached Mineral Point, to find Bennett had been gone two weeks and had taken my outfit with him as we first planned.
I was a little troubled, but set out light loaded for Dubuque, crossed the river there and then alone across Iowa, over wet and muddy roads, till I fell in with some wagons west of the Desmoines River. They were from Milwaukee, owned by a Mr. Blodgett, and I camped with them a few nights, till we got to the Missouri River.
I rushed ahead the last day or two and got there before them. There were a few California wagons here, and some campers, so I put my pony out to grass and looked around. I waded across the low bottom to a strip of dry land next to the river, where there was a post office, store, and a few cabins. I looked first for a letter, but there was none. Then I began to look over the cards in the trading places and saloons, and read the names written on the logs of the houses, and everywhere I thought there might be a trace of the friends I sought. No one had seen or knew them. After looking half a day I waded back again to the pony–pretty blue. I thought first I would go back and wait another year, but there was a small train near where I left the pony, and it was not considered very safe to go beyond there except with a pretty good train. I sat down in camp and turned the matter over in my mind, and talked with Chas. Dallas of Lynn, Iowa, who owned the train. Bennett had my outfit and gun, while I had his light gun, a small, light tent, a frying pan, a tin cup, one woolen shirt and the clothes on my back. Having no money to get another outfit, I about concluded to turn back when Dallas said that if I would drive one of his teams through, he would board me, and I could turn my pony in with his loose horses; I thought it over, and finally put my things in the wagon and took the ox whip to go on. Dallas intended to get provision here, but could not, so we went down to St. Jo, following the river near the bluff. We camped near town and walked in, finding a small train on the main emigrant road to the west. My team was one yoke of oxen and one yoke of cows. I knew how to drive, but had a little trouble with the strange animals till they found I was kind to them, and then they were all right.
This was in a slave state, and here I saw the first negro auction. One side of the street had a platform such as we build for a political speaker. The auctioneer mounted this with a black boy about 18 years old, and after he had told all his good qualities and had the boy stand up bold and straight, he called for bids, and they started him at $500. He rattled away as if he were selling a steer, and when Mr. Rubideaux, the founder of St. Jo bid $800, he went no higher and the boy was sold. With my New England notions it made quite an impression on me.
Here Dallas got his supplies, and when the flour and bacon was loaded up the ferryman wanted $50 to take the train across. This Dallas thought too high and went back up the river a day’s drive, where he got across for $30. From this crossing we went across the country without much of a road till we struck the road from St. Jo, and were soon on the Platte bottom.
We found some fine strawberries at one of the camps across the country. We found some hills, but now the country was all one vast prairie, not a tree in sight till we reached the Platte, there some cottonwood and willow. At the first camp on the Platte I rolled up in my blanket under the wagon and thought more than I slept, but I was in for it and no other way but to go on. I had heard that there were two forts, new Ft. Kearny and Ft. Laramie, on the south side of the river, which we must pass before we reached the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, and beyond there there would be no place to buy medicine or food. Our little train of five wagons, ten men, one woman and three children would not be a formidable force against the Indians if they were disposed to molest us, and it looked to me very hazardous, and that a larger train would be more safe, for Government troops were seldom molested on their marches.
If I should not please Mr. Dallas and get turned off with only my gun and pony I should be in a pretty bad shape, but I decided to keep right on and take the chances on the savages, who would get only my hair and my gun as my contribution to them if they should be hostile. I must confess, however, that the trail ahead did not look either straight or bright to me, but hoped it might be better than I thought. So I yoked my oxen and cows to the wagon and drove on. All the other teams had two drivers each, who took turns, and thus had every other day off for hunting if they chose, but I had to carry the whip every day and leave my gun in the wagon.
When we crossed Salt Creek the banks were high and we had to tie a strong rope to the wagons and with a few turns around a post, lower them down easily, while we had to double the teams to get them up the other side.
Night came on before half the wagons were over, and though it did not rain the water rose before morning so it was ten feet deep. We made a boat of one of the wagon beds, and had a regular ferry, and when they pulled the wagons over they sank below the surface but came out all right. We came to Pawnee Village, on the Platte, a collection of mud huts, oval in shape, and an entrance low down to crawl in at. A ground owl and some prairie dogs were in one of them, and we suspected they might be winter quarters for the Indians.
Dallas and his family rode in the two-horse wagon. Dick Field was cook, and the rest of us drove the oxen. We put out a small guard at night to watch for Indians and keep the stock together so there might be no delay in searching for them. When several miles from Ft. Kearney I think on July 3rd, we camped near the river where there was a slough and much cottonwood and willow. Just after sundown a horse came galloping from the west and went in with our horses that were feeding a little farther down. In the morning two soldiers came from the fort, inquiring after the stray horse, but Dallas said he had seen none, and they did not hunt around among the willows for the lost animal. Probably it would be the easiest way to report back to the fort–“Indians got him.” When we hitched up in the morning he put the horse on the off side of his own, and when near the fort, he went ahead on foot and entertained the officers while the men drove by, and the horse was not discovered. I did not like this much, for if we were discovered, we might be roughly handled, and perhaps the property of the innocent even confiscated. Really my New England ideas of honesty were somewhat shocked.